Back in 1982 when I was just married and living in Minneapolis, my wife and I went to see a Russian film version of “Hamlet.” That sounds like a quite the romantic date, doesn’t it? What can I say? It was a rainy, gloomy night in the middle of the week in November and we didn’t have much else to do, so: “Hey, honey, let’s go over to some museum in St. Paul and watch a Russian version of ‘Hamlet’” was better than “You’re in for some fun, tonight, baby! I found the Parcheesi set!”
It turned out to be a spectacular movie. The play had been translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak (author of “Dr. Zhivago”) and was played with subtitles. The film was shot in black and white and opened with a shot of waves crashing against a rocky shoreline beneath the Danish castle, then cut to two riders galloping furiously across the steppes. It was an astonishing film in that it was both epic and intimate. And may I just say this? The film wove magic that an evening of Parcheesi in our small apartment could never have done.
It inspired me to pull out seven more Shakespeare films that are well worth the watch.
This is—in my opinion—Shakespeare’s funniest play. I’ve seen five or six stage versions of it, and it never fails to get huge laughs from the audience. In this fairly traditional version, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson play the sparring would-be lovers Beatrice and Benedict, whom everyone knows belong together and whom everyone conspires to bring together, despite their relentless animosity toward each other. Great supporting cast too: Robert Sean Leonard, Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves (yes, he’s good!) and Michael Keaton as Dogberry, the idiotic constable. Wonderful.
What’s not to love about this movie? A fictionalized imagining of the writing and first production of “Romeo and Juliet,” this movie is relentlessly charming, amusing, and romantic. The cast is magnificent (well, mostly—don’t get me going about Ben Affleck): Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Judi Dench. But the best feature of this movie is the screenplay. Although credited jointly to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, this script is a showcase of Stoppard’s verbal pyrotechnics. You might also want to check out the film version of Stoppard’s take on “Hamlet” in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990).
This is a completely different take on the same play, and it’s stunning. Baz Luhrmann reimagines the tragic love story as one set in contemporary America (“Verona Beach”—a version of gang-infested 1990s Venice, CA). In Luhrmann’s vision, the original dialogue is used, but this is a modern urban American gangster drama. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are the star-crossed lovers, swords become guns, and there are lowriders, tattoos, and the violence is real and frightening. Definitely worth a rental.
Really? This is a Shakespeare movie? Yes! It’s based on “Twelfth Night,” one of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies, and tells the story of a gritty young woman, Olivia, who disguises herself as a man but ends up falling in love with a handsome prince. The play has all the elements of a farce—mistaken identities, disguises, lots of physical comedy, sexual confusion—but it is ultimately a pretty dark tale. The idea here was to take the premise of “Twelfth Night” and turn it into a high school teen comedy. Pretty clever idea, I must say. Does it work? Not entirely. But what does make it work as well as it does is Amanda Bynes. I’ve always thought Bynes was a significantly underrated actress who can deliver funny even when given woeful material. If you’re looking for a brilliant new way of looking at Shakespeare, move along. Nothing to see here. But if you accept the movie on the terms it seeks (a silly teen comedy), you’re in for a fun ride.
“The Taming of the Shrew” is a much likelier play to be turned into a teen comedy. And this one’s actually pretty good, top-to-bottom. First of all, it has a great cast: Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larry Miller, and Allison Janney. I am an enormous admirer of Heath Ledger, and his early death was a nearly incalculable loss to film. He’s marvelous in this reworking of the tale of sparring lovers who belong together (a familiar theme for Shakespeare). Julia Stiles is wonderful, and I just love Larry Miller as the overprotective, woe-be-set-upon single dad (Baptista Minola in the stage play.) Is this a misogynistic story? Not this version. It’s pure fun and a bit of a feminist tale as well.
I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of this movie, and I wouldn’t have either had we not gone to see that Russian version of “Hamlet” that night. The next night the museum was showing Chimes at Midnight so we decided to forego Parcheesi once again to check this out. Jackpot! Orson Welles had taken all the Falstaff parts from Shakespeare’s history plays (plus parts of “The Merry Wives of Windsor”) and combined them into one narrative centered around Falstaff, played by Welles himself. Brilliant is really not strong enough a word for how Welles pulls this off. Welles has said that this film, at its core, is the story of the betrayal of a friendship between the dissolute Falstaff and the crown prince Hal. There’s a battle sequence late in the film that is among the most terrifying ever put on film. The movie is funny, moving, and bedazzling by turns.
Julie Taymor is one of the most daring and innovative theater directors in the world. She brought Disney’s The Lion King to the Broadway stage in a dazzling production noted for its incredible masks and use of puppets. Here she takes on one of Shakespeare’s final (and possibly greatest) plays. She cast Helen Mirren in the role of Prospero (in this case, Prospera). To be completely honest, the whole thing doesn’t quite work. It’s a bit of a mess, although Mirren is fabulous and fans of the play should still certainly see it. It’s a bold revisioning of the play.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.